Saleh gives the Saudis the Slip

28 September 2011


But the “S” word in Yemen

is and remains “STABILITY”

President Saleh of Yemen has proved himself a wiley character by giving his Saudi “hosts” the slip and beating feet out of the Kingdom back home to Yemen. On the front page of today’s Financial Times there was a short story saying that there were two different versions of Saleh’s “escape” from Saudi Arabia making the rounds in diplomatic circles. The Saudis, of course, said that Saleh was under no restrictions, and the Yemeni government of course claimed that their president didn’t have to play any tricks to get out of the Kingdom, but it is pretty clear from the context that they’re all making nice now but this was definitely not the plan. But it was a way to put an end to the Definitive Ambiguity in Yemen.

Saleh’s return to “his” country and “his” people was immediately greeted by protests and an upsurge in violence. Thus the end of ambiguity of Yemen does not mean “peace” — or, at least, not a peace worth having. Some people would call this “stability.” The last sentence of the FT story was a quote from a western diplomat, who is supposed to have said, “He wants to show that he’s brought some stability.”


Can you believe these people? And by “these people” I mean both western diplomats and Saleh and his ilk. Is there anyone with half a brain who thinks that the enforced “stability” of Saleh’s iron fist can deliver anything like stability, even in the short term? The people of Yemen, except for regime cronies (who probably include tribal and familial interest groups, as with Gaddafi’s dead-enders in Sirte and Bani Walid), obviously do not want Saleh as their “leader” any more, and are doing everything within their power to send the message.

It’s not like President Saleh has to read tea leaves or consult an astrologer: the BBC reported the immediate response to Saleh’s return as it registered on local social media.

I suppose Saleh had already revealed his slippery character earlier in his repeated professions of willingness of negotiate and even to relinquish power, while equally repeatedly side-stepping any definitive action that would have meant his ouster from power. Now we see that his actions verge of the devious, and this does not bode well for a peace transition from power. And because the actions of the president do not bode well for a peaceful transition of power, Saleh’s return is the antithesis of stability.

In The Arab Spring and the Limits of Western Power I commented on the many decades of failed attempts to impose and enforce order and social stability in the Arabian Peninsula. This is equally true whether the attempted imposition of stability is the result of outside forces or indigenous intransigence on the part of the leadership of the nation-state in question.

I will say it again: stability in the region will correspond precisely to the degree of popular sovereignty that is realized in local institutions. When peoples feel themselves in command of their own destiny, they make different political choices than if they feel powerless and at the mercy of arbitrary rule. Thus the Saudi announcement that women would be allowed to vote and to run for office seems like progress in the Kingdom, but of course most people will feel (even if they do not fully understand) that this is just another dictate of arbitrary power from a spectacularly non-representative regime.

Saleh, who could have slipped away quietly into history, has, by returning to Yemen, brought with him not stability, but violence, confrontation, and needless bloodshed.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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